Cancer fight inspired teacher to give others a sporting chance

Helen Mackenzie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer ten yearsago, has been named as one of 50 movers who inspire others to have a go at sport
Helen Mackenzie, who was diagnosed with breast cancer ten yearsago, has been named as one of 50 movers who inspire others to have a go at sport
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Ten years ago Helen Mackenzie was diagnosed with breast cancer. She decided to use her love of sport to help herself and others, reports Catherine Scott.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago, Helen Mackenzie was warned her next birthday could be her last.

Helen  set up Ripon City Netball Club after she was diagnosed with breast cancer

Helen set up Ripon City Netball Club after she was diagnosed with breast cancer

But the super fit PE teacher was determined that breast cancer was not going to beat her.

“It was a huge shock being diagnosed with breast cancer , which had spread and was stage 3,” says Helen, now 53 from Ripon.

“I was only 42, my eldest daughter Laura was sitting her 11-plus and my youngest Amy was only seven. We kept it from them as much as we could.”

She had a mastectomy and reconstruction and then eight rounds of gruelling chemotherapy.

Helen Mackenzie

Helen Mackenzie

For Helen the chemotherapy was very tough.

“I got to the point where they had to sedate me to have the last three sessions,” she recalls.

“I felt that if the cancer didn’t kill me then the treatment would – and I suppose in some ways it had to if it was to kill the cancer, but it was the hardest thing I have ever done, but I made it through.”

As well as the physical effects, there were psychological ones.

Helen was well known in Ripon as director of sport at Ripon Grammar School and because she had been an international swimmer, born in the city, and a keen volunteer.

“I didn’t want to suddenly become ‘cancer girl’. I didn’t want the cancer to define me. I needed to do something positive.”

Read more: Yorkshire NHS Trusts get funding for cancer testing and detection technology

And so Helen decided to use her love of sport to help not only herself but others.

“Ripon had football and rugby clubs but there was no netball club. I wanted to set up something that I could do with my two girls who are also both really sporty. There is no better feeling than playing in the same team as your kids.”

She started Ripon City Netball Club.

“I wanted a club that was open to all women no matter if they hadn’t played netball since they were at school. I wanted somewhere people could go and become part of a supportive team no matter what their ability.”

From just 15 members the club now has 84 and five teams who meet regularly.

“It’s not just about the sport,” says Helen.

“A lot of my players have brought their daughters along so they can have a night out together, while doing something healthy. It is a time when women who have such busy lives can have a bit of time just for themselves. It’s wonderful.

Sport has always been a massive part of Helen Mackenzie’s life.

She and her sister were regular fixtures at Ripon Spa Baths, with their mother helping to count lengths as they ticked off their bronze, silver and gold awards.

“She and dad then qualified as AA officials and that’s how it all began,” she recalls.

“I gained national and international recognition early in my career, and then I pursued the teaching side. I soon became an Advanced Swimming teacher, coach and course tutor. As well teaching lifesaving, parent and baby, Aquafit and what I loved most, teaching people with special needs.

“By the age of 18 I knew that I wanted to teach, not just swimming but all manner of sports. Having eventually passed my A-levels, I left Ripon for Liverpool and the I M Marsh PE College, the place where aspiring PE teachers went, including some who taught me at Ripon Grammar School.

“I loved Liverpool and all aspects of university life. It was here I met my husband, John, and I left in 1990 with a first class honours degree in Secondary Physical Education and English. John and I started our married life in Northumberland but I always had a hankering to return to Ripon, not least to be near mum when we lost dad.”

When the Director of Sport job came up at her old school she knew she had to apply.

“It wasn’t just a case of applying for a job, I liked the look of, but of moving our daughters, Laura and Amy away from their friends, so it wasn’t an easy decision to make.”

Helen got the job and started work at Ripon in September 2006 – teaching the likes of Olympic diving star Jack Laugher.

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Just three years later she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

She is now 10 years on and officially in remission although she undergoes regular check-ups.

“There is always a shadow of breast cancer over your life once you’ve had it. But at ther end of the day it could have killed me but it didn’t. As my husband said, cancer chose the wrong person to have a fight with.”

Helen has just been named on the UK’s first Movers List, which has been compiled by Lucozade Sport to recognise 50 individuals whose volunteering, charity work or dedication to sport and exercise has inspired local communities to become more active.

Lucozade Sport found that 61 per cent of men and 71 per cent of women were more likely to stick to regular sport and exercise if they were part of a group as opposed to being on their own.

They then identified 50 individuals to create the inaugural Lucozade Sport Movers List, recognising and celebrating the unsung people who inspire others to move.

“I have no idea how I got on the list but it is an honour.

Helen is no stranger to accolades having been chosen as a torch bearer during the 2012 Olympics, and has been given a British Citizen Award for her services to volunteering in her community.

When not running the 
netball club, which she admits is almost a full-time job, she works with all 19 primary schools in the Ripon Cluster and spends three days a week in Ripon Grammar School inspiring a new generation of sportsmen and women.

“To put it simply, I love my job.”

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The Movers List

Helen Mackenzie has been featured in the UK’s first Movers List which has been compiled by Lucozade Sport to recognise 50 individuals whose volunteering, charity work or dedication to sport and exercise has inspired their communities to be more active.

“My club instils confidence and gives woman the courage to walk through the door and take up a sport, regardless of their age or ability.

“I’m passionate about getting people more active and feel that children seeing their mums involved in sport is a great place to start,” says Helen.

For more information visit www.lucozadesport.com/the-movers-list/